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March 20, 2012

Bollinger: Free Speech, Except on His Own Campus

In a recent interview, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger was asked whether the Hazelwood standard of student speech should be applied to colleges and universities. (Hazelwood gave high-school teachers and administrators broad authority to restrict student speech, in the name of advancing "legitimate pedagogical goals.") Bollinger issued a strong caution:

"I definitely do not think, and have not thought, it should apply to public colleges and universities. The recognition for many decades has been that universities are basically dealing with adults, and our general conception of free speech and press very much applies in that context. Sure, there may be slight variations, to accommodate the purposes and interests of institutions of higher education, but not very many. And I don't think that Hazelwood's sensitivity--to speech that might be inappropriate or make people uncomfortable--would in any way apply in the university context. So I would be deeply surprised if that were the ultimate outcome in a case like that."

Given Bollinger's ringing defense of student free speech, I assumed that the university over which he presides has an excellent record for protecting student rights. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to see that not only has Columbia not earned a FIRE green-light rating, it received a red-light rating, for speech code policies that "both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."

For instance, at Columbia, the sexual harassment policy forbids "unwanted sexual attention," even if the harassment was "unintentional." In other words, in good faith, a male student could ask a female student for a date--"sexual attention"--and be committing sexual harassment if the female student didn't want to be asked.

How could such a policy be reconciled with Bollinger's professed belief "that universities are basically dealing with adults," and that "Hazelwood's sensitivity--to speech that might be inappropriate or make people uncomfortable--would [not] in any way apply in the university context"?

Or take Columbia's "gender-based misconduct" policy, which among other things prohibits "inappropriate sexual innuendoes or humor."

How could a policy (that appears to deem off-color jokes to be "gender-based misconduct") be reconciled with Bollinger's professed belief "that universities are basically dealing with adults," and that "Hazelwood's sensitivity--to speech that might be inappropriate or make people uncomfortable--would [not] in any way apply in the university context"?

Or take Columbia's "hate crimes/bias-related incidents" policy, which targets "behavior motivated by hate," even, it seems, if the behavior itself doesn't violate any other university policy or criminal law. The reason for such a sweeping definition, the policy explains, is to address the "deep pain" such actions "have on our entire community." Could a Columbia student speaking out against the use of racial preferences in admissions be deemed guilty of "behavior motivated by hate"?

How could such a policy--based on an extraordinary sensitivity to whoever in the Columbia community is most likely to be offended--reconciled with Bollinger's professed belief "that universities are basically dealing with adults," and that "Hazelwood's sensitivity--to speech that might be inappropriate or make people uncomfortable--would [not] in any way apply in the university context"?

It would seem, therefore, that Bollinger doesn't consider students at his own university to be "adults," and therefore free speech rights at Columbia--as the Hazelwood case envisions for high school--must be checked at the gates on 116th Street.

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KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of "Until Proven Innocent."

Comments (2)

Alex Bensky:

It isn't just Columbia where Bollinger's dedication to free speech is lacking. He was the dean at the law school where I went, albeit sometime after my student years. And again, he was able to live with certain free speech exceptions.

Miyuki:

You have a great undergrad major to eventually go into SLP master's programs. You do have some things to consider, however: You do have to take undergrad courses BEFORE you begin the actually master's curriculum. This is called leveling and it varies by university. Some universities do not level, they only accept those with a background in communication disorders. My university is one like this. At ours, we have a fast track program where you take all of your undergrad major courses in one year and then apply to the master's program the next instead of taking four years for the undergrad + grad coursework, it takes three. Every university is different. These courses are required as part of ASHA certification. As I am sure you are aware, you must take the GRE. I recommend, personally, to get 1000+ on it. I know a girl who had around 700 and she got in to one school, but she also had a 4.0-Grades are crazy. I have a 3.83 and I was on wait-lists. EXPERIENCE! If you have volunteer, personal, work experience with the populations you would eventually be working with, let it shine!

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